I felt my heart break yesterday.
It took just a glimpse of baby clothes hanging from a rail. A box of infant diapers in a box and I felt the piercing melancholy of sadness and sorrow sear my heart.
It happened at work.
I was giving a tour of one of the the emergency shelter floors at Inn from the Cold. One of the amazing frontline shelter staff had just finished telling the visitors about the shelter floors, when he shared the story of a mother who had given birth the day before. “She’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.
Staff had prepared a welcome home package for her and her infant.
But a shelter is not a home, my heart whispered. A shelter is not home.
I walked our visitors through the shelter area and when I came to the cubicle where this woman will return to with her baby, I paused. And that’s when I felt my heart break.
Hanging from the railing of one of the bunkbeds in her cubicle was a baby sleeper. It looked so sweet and innocent. So precious and full of possibility.
And she is returning with this precious being to a family emergency shelter.
I wondered if she was afraid. Scared. Worried that she was bringing this child into such an uncertain future.
Yes, she knows we are doing our utmost to ensure she and her children are connected to the right resources to be able to move beyond the shelter quickly. And yes, she knows, just as we know, this housing crisis she is experiencing is only a temporary space in her journey. But she must feel fear and anxiety. She still must feel lost and frightened, worried for her child and the future.
I lay in bed this morning thinking about this mother and her infant. Beside me, my loving husband slept peacefully. Between us, Marley the Great Cat lay stretched out snoring. And on the floor at the end of the bed, Beaumont the Sheepadoodle slept soundly. Outside the open window, darkness was turning gently to light, distant traffic hummed as the city awoke.
I lay safely enveloped in my bed, breathing deeply into my ‘love bubble’ as I like to think of my early morning laying awake before I get up time.
And a tear trickled silently down my face.
What of this woman and her child?
What of the other three women who gave birth last week?
What are they feeling?
I felt anger rising within me.
We at the community level do everything we can to ease the burden of homelessness on each family’s life. We work hard to ensure we have the right resources, right supports, right people in place to help each family as they enter our doors. We do not want anyone to become trapped in homelessness and do whatever it takes to support them on the journey home.
The average length of stay at the shelter is thirty-five days. It’s not a long time, but in the eyes of a child, it can feel like forever. In the arms of a mother holding her newborn child, it can feel like a life sentence.
National plans are made and provincial plans follow and still the money does not flow. Land is set aside, architectural designs are created and still communities lobby against the housing that will end the crisis in so many lives. Agencies on the ground wait for the green light to get building, to get moving people out of homelessness back home and still, there is not enough of the right housing with the right supports to move them into.
Pundits talk about big picture planning and taking the long view of how best to alleviate the crisis in affordable housing in Canada while children and families keep knocking at the door of the shelter hoping it will open. Hoping a way home will appear.
We do not, cannot, turn a family away.
There are lives at stake. Fragile minds in development.
To turn children away is to risk the very future of our country.
So we do what we can. And it is not enough.
We must stop talking about the crisis in affordable housing and get building. We must stop talking about the need for guaranteed income as if it’s a drag on the economic report card of our country and see it through the lens of giving vulnerable families the stability they need to build brighter futures for their children.
We must stop looking at the agencies doing the heavy lifting at the front lines as the ‘last resort’ and see them as the only resort families have when facing a housing crisis — not because that’s what they planned for — but rather, because we as a country, as a society, have not planned well for this future we are living today where social and economic inequities keep people trapped in poverty.
The children and families who come to our door didn’t plan on being at the shelter.
But we, the society and community in which they lived, sure did plan on having the shelter there to catch them.
Let’s stop looking at how to catch people when they fall and start building the system of care that takes care of people so they don’t fall.